Let’s hedge this with all the usual qualifiers. Kerry could pull it out. The spread’s within the margin of error. Respondents to polls are lying out of fear of John Ashcroft. Pollsters aren’t reaching Kerrycrats with cell phones. But whatever way you cut it, after three debates in which polls assessed him as the victor, most polls say Kerry is lagging. As of now (October 20), the spread mostly ranges from an eight-point Bush lead to a dead heat. Worse, from Kerry’s point of view, some postdebate numbers show him dropping among low-income workers and urban voters, once the lifeblood of the Democratic Party. Margins in crucial states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida are razor-thin.
Why? Has a candidate or a party ever been more pleasantly caressed by the winds of history in an election year than John Kerry and the Democrats? A majority of Americans don’t think Bush has done a particularly good job, and they’ve thought this for months, though more of them like Bush than like Kerry.
On Bush’s watch the economy has performed poorly, and people are scared it will soon get worse. Headlines have blared the news: Real wages have fallen across the past year. Many people who lost jobs in the recession aren’t getting them back. Under Bush the percentage of people with jobs has fallen by 2 percent, which translates into 4.5 million people. Middle-class income is falling. More are in poverty than ever before. The budget deficit is more than 40 percent of federal revenues, excluding funds ultimately committed to Social Security and Medicare.
Bush and his closest associates have been directly identified in almost all major mass media as perpetrators of one of the most colossal deceits in the history of propaganda, the concoction of Saddam’s nonexistent WMDs as the pretext for attacking Iraq last year. Could any candidate have hoped for an October thunderclap as sonorous as that sounded by Charles Duelfer of the government’s own Iraq Survey Group, that when the United States launched its attack Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction and had long since abandoned programs to produce them?
The war on Iraq itself is unpopular. It has carried other well-publicized scandals in its slipstream: the Plame investigation into the White House’s outing of the identity of a CIA officer; the devastation to America’s international stature wrought by the tortures ordered and perpetrated by Americans in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere; the Israeli spy scandal. In mid-month yet another October surprise was gifted to Kerry: a mutiny by US troops in Iraq, publicly accusing the Army of ordering them to risk death without adequate equipment.
So history has dealt Kerry all the high cards, save the one that bears his own face (against the scenic background of a billionaire wife and six houses). This card still lies on Bush’s side of the table.
Only two men in US history have gone directly from the Senate to the White House, Warren Harding in 1920 and John F. Kennedy in the squeaker of 1960. This year the Democrats put two senators on the ticket, thereby burdening it with the deficits of incumbency endured by Bush. Few weapons in Bush’s sparse armory in the debates were as effective as his riposte to Kerry’s innumerable, pledge-laden plans for healthcare: “He’s been in the United States Senate twenty years. Show me one accomplishment toward Medicare that he accomplished.”